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In coronavirus fight, medical assistant MJ Martinez' translations are a lifeline for patients

"The most challenging part of my job, the hardest part, is having to deliver bad news," says the physician's assistant, who translates in Spanish for Latino families.
Image: Marajazmin Martinez.
Marajazmin Martinez.Daiana Ruiz / for NBC News

Marajazmin "MJ" Martinez was in elementary school when she took on the role of unofficial family translator. Martinez, a first-generation American of Mexican heritage, was used to reading school notices and bills in English and explaining what they meant to her mother, her grandmother and other relatives.

"I knew even then, maybe in third grade, that I wanted to make it easier for people to understand each other, to help different cultures communicate," Martinez said.

Martinez, 28, is now a medical assistant at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial Hospital in the San Joaquin Valley, an area of farmland in the central part of California. She interacts with patients as well as with health care providers at all levels. As a certified interpreter, she also draws on her bilingual skills to help others.

"The Spanish-speaking population here is huge," Martinez said. (San Joaquin County is about 41 percent Latino.) "When you are in need and you find someone who can explain things to you in your language, you feel like you've found yourself, you feel way more connected."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Being the connection between a doctor and a patient can come with tremendous responsibility. "The most challenging part of my job, the hardest part, is having to deliver bad news. It may come from the doctor, but the patient or their family hears it from me," Martinez said.

She noted that health care workers feel emotional, just like laypeople do. "There have been times when certain cases do hit me, when it hits closer to home. But it is always important to keep your professional face on," she said. "When we go into a patient's room and the door closes behind us, we have to be the person that they can count on."

As in other parts of the country, Latinos account for a significant number of COVID-19 cases in the San Joaquin Valley. According to San Joaquin County Public Health Services, as of Sept. 3, there had been about 18,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county and 368 deaths from the virus. Latinos accounted for 27 percent of those cases and 42 percent of the deaths. But some scientists say the true numbers are higher than the official figures because of testing problems, particularly among the region's farmworkers.

Given that reality, Martinez's relatives sometimes worry about her safety on the job. "But I tell them, if I feel safe anywhere, it is at work," she said. "We wear full PPE," or personal protective equipment. Her hospital even assigns employees — known as "Don and Doffers" — to help workers put on and take off their protective gear properly.

Martinez's spiritual beliefs help her maintain her strength. "I am a faithful girl. I am a very strong believer," she said. "My relationship with God has kept me sane."

Working during the health crisis has also improved her outlook on life. "Anything that is positive, you grasp at it, you must take advantage of it," she said.

"My husband and my son fulfill my life," Martinez said, "but working in health care fulfills my person."

She plans to continue her health care education and training, and she is especially proud that her niece is considering the medical field, as well.

"During the pandemic, I have grown as a person, as a mom, as a daughter," Martinez said. "I see all the things we can't do anymore, from going to the movies to spending time with family and friends. This crisis has taught me not to take things for granted. And I am blessed to do this kind of work."

"It all comes down to helping others, to showing God's love," said Martinez, "being able to leave your little granito moreno [brown grain of sand] on this Earth."

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